This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.
The Palace of Westminster, an iconic UNESCO world heritage site of great historical, cultural and political significance, remains in serious need of restoration and renewal. However, despite broad consensus on the critical nature of this work for almost 25 years, progress has been painfully slow. With Parliament spending up to £2 million a week patching up the Palace, and a growing list of health and safety incidents, there is a real and rising risk that a catastrophic event will destroy the Palace before it is ever repaired and restored.
Recently, after years of procrastination, and parliamentary decisions being reopened, Parliament and the House Authorities have introduced significant changes to the previously agreed programme at pace. They must now maintain this momentum to have a fighting chance of achieving an extremely ambitious programme timetable. At the end of 2023, Parliament will decide on an option for undertaking the work and then further work will be done on what the restored Palace will look like.
We were encouraged to see that the Clerk of the House of Commons and the Clerk of the Parliaments (for the House of Lords) finally seem to acknowledge publicly the enormity of this task, for which they are now personally accountable, and the challenges ahead. In our previous two reports, we have highlighted that Parliament needs to clarify its requirements; progress essential related projects; and improve engagement with Members of Parliament, staff, and the public. To date there has been particular focus on Members of Parliament rather than the thousands of staff and visitors who use the building.
Experience to date shows that these enduring challenges will not be easy to overcome. The new governance structure, which brings Parliament closer to the programme, may mitigate some risks but these arrangements remain untested. For progress to be made Parliament still needs to agree what a restored palace might look like, and how work will be undertaken. Without this steer, the cost and timeframe for the work will remain uncertain. It is incredible that five years after the House determined a course of action that these questions remain unanswered. The cost of renewal will be high but further delays are hugely costly to the taxpayer – lack of action is not value for money. We hope that Members of Parliament will grasp the scale and importance of what needs to be done and that they will take the opportunities offered to engage in consultations and inform themselves so that they can agree and collectively support a way forward for the programme.
The Clerks are now legally responsible for the building works alongside their existing accountability as corporate and accounting officers. And yet, if asked to do something they considered to be unwise or not value for money there is no mechanism, short of resignation, for them to place their professional concerns on record or to alert Members of Parliament. Such a mechanism should exist, possibly akin to an accounting officer in a government department seeking a ministerial direction.
The Clerks and the newly created R&R Client Team within the House Administrations, need to build confidence in their ability to deliver a programme of this magnitude and complexity. To do so, timely transparency and compliance with health and safety protocols, particularly around asbestos, needs to urgently improve before more significant works and potentially more serious incidents occur. Without Parliament and the public having confidence, these critical works will continue to stall, leading to potentially catastrophic consequences for a much-treasured iconic building and continuing risks to those working inside.